“When I collapsed with paralysis, my husband was on duty at Kargil,” recalls Deepa Malik. “I dealt with the situation by myself. Neither I nor my husband wanted to ignore his duty to the nation for domestic issues. Once I was finally able to sit up on my own and move in with him, he was posted to Jhansi.”
Completely bound to the wheelchair since 1999, Malik suffered the usual tirade of questions that society flung at her, relentlessly. “I didn’t know what to say to questions like ‘Are you feeling better today? What did the doctors say?’ My surgeries were over and I was permanently paralysed from my torso. What was I supposed to say?” she says. “People wondered whether I would ever be a good daughter-in-law or even a good mother.
The battle within
It was humiliating. They treated me as if I was already dead. That’s when I decided to do something to prove that I was alive and I was going to do it all by myself,” shares Deepa Malik.
Life changed with her husband’s posting at Jhansi. “I had just learnt to sit up at that point but being the squadron commander’s wife, I had responsibilities. There were 35 families that needed to be taken care of and I couldn’t use the excuse of being paralysed,” she says in a matter-of-fact way.
“My family and that of my husband has a long association with the army and some member of our family has been a part of every war that has been waged since the independence. We have learnt to take the loss of limb or life in our stride.” Their new quarters were in the middle of reorganisation. “It was the batch of 115,” she recalls. “The cadets lived in quarters that were three km away from the mess.
They had to go through the conduct of dressing up appropriately for stepping out each time they had to visit the mess.”
That was when Deepa Malik came up with the idea of opening a little canteen to provide food for the cadets. “I called it Dee’s Place,” she recalls fondly. “I had hoped that some of the cadets would come in every once in a while for food but within days, there was such a huge turnout at the place!” She soon had to add more furniture and employ more cooks to accommodate the visitors. Dee’s Place was the first experience of self-reliance after her surgery.
“A lot of doors come your way in life. You have to have the guts to walk through them,” she says. Among the regulars at Dee’s Place were the young bikers. “They got along with me very well as I had always loved bikes.
Deepa Malik, the champion
Whenever they made modifications to their bikes they would come to show it off to me,” she says. Soon the idea of having a modified bike to suit her needs came by and it was just a matter of time before she had one.
And soon after, she was part of the hit Roadies show on television. “It was then that I faced questions from the media about how I maintained my health. Biking requires stamina and I said that I swim to stay fit. Curious, she asked if she could take a few shots of me swimming. It was that footage that caught the attention of the Maharashtra Paralympic Committee,” Deepa Malik narrates. “Soon they asked me to represent India at a paralympic sports meet in Malaysia.
That was it.” She pauses, “People said I would die in one room, in my own piss… and I was on my way to represent the country at an international sports meet in Malaysia,” she seethes, still choking on the memory. “My father always said that I never gave up on a passion till I had reached the pinnacle,” she laughs, a little later.
“When I was riding a bike, I followed it through until I got myself on the famous show which is considered the destination of all bikers in the country. When I started swimming, I wanted to come home only when I had got a few gold medals to show around.” That was a challenge. “The number of female participants in swimming was so low that though I came in second, no medals could be handed out,” says Deepa Malik.
Beauty lies in the spirit
That was compensated with her participation in sports like javelin and shot put. “I have always made an effort to look good,” she says. “In 1997 I participated in a beauty pageant. My spine had started to collapse a little and I had a pronounced limp when I walked down the ramp. The judges asked me why I chose to participate and I said that I don’t think my disability made me feel less beautiful.”
Having earned her share of records and medals, she returned to her current base in New Delhi, where she lives with her elder daughter Devika while the younger daughter when she was chosen to be the Arjuna awardee for this year. “I visited the dargah at Ajmer to offer my thanks to the Almighty. It has been an incredible journey.”